Automata of the Middle Ages

This topic is one of the interesting intersections between my medieval research and my current research into Chinese technology. Some of the earliest known automated figures are clock jacks–figures that come out and do something when a clock strikes a certain hour. On Su Sung’s astronomical clock (c. 1070 CE) ranks of figures perform various actions at different times, including playing music. Designs for similar figures exist in The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, produced c. 850 CE by a trio of Iranian brothers.

the bell-striking "Jacks" at Wells Cathedral clock dating to the late 14th century

the bell-striking “Jacks” at Wells Cathedral clock dating to the late 14th century

These figures move by a series of gearworks tied to the mechanism of the clock, which might be driven by weights or by water (Su Sung). The handy thing about a water-driven mechanism is that the water can be made to do many other things, like fill or empty from a chamber resulting in slower or more complex movements, like the playing of music which often consisted of either percussion (made by the dropping of objects or lowering of an arm) or flute music, made by using water pressure to force air out of a narrowed opening creating whistles of different tones.

In England, in the 15th century, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths organized a revel to honor the king which included a statue of a golden angel who turned and raised a trumpet. I have been trying to find my notes about this celebration without success–perhaps one of the scholars out there has the specifics? Automata of various sorts appear in the literature of the time, sometimes as mechanical arbiters of justice. Apparently, they begin to appear in the mid-12th century, suggesting that the European image of automata may have been influenced by real examples seen during the crusades as a result of the Islamic interest in such devices.

Automata had a darker role as well, however, one that suggests not their “ingenious” nature as created by man, but their unnatural aspect. The 13th century friar Roger Bacon, regarded nowadays as an early chemist and precursor to today’s scientists, is said to have possessed a brazen head that could speak prophecies–and which was presumed to be of demonic origin. He was imprisoned as a heretic, but eventually freed to die in obscurity and spawn much later speculation about the true nature of his talents.

For myself, I prophesy that I shall much more to say on this topic at a later date.

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The Fiction Reboot Presents: “Striking Research Gold” by D.B. Jackson

E. C. Ambrose:

Here’s fellow historical fiction author D. B. Jackson talking about his research, in this case, into a smallpox outbreak in Colonial Boston. Seemed like just the kind of thing I should pass along. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Fiction Reboot | Daily Dose:

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot and the Daily Dose! Today, we are pleased to present the work of D.B. Jackson/David Coe–the Thieftaker Chronicles. One of my favorite things about this series, aside from the brilliant characters, is Jackson’s use of history. I am a historian myself, and work at a medical museum–disease stalks our past like no other villain.DailyDose_Poster (Of course, disease isn’t the only villain in the Thieftaker’s Boston!) Let’s hear about striking “research gold”–Welcome D.B.!

PlunderofSouls_hi_comp150My newest novel, A Plunder of Souls, is the third installment in my Thieftaker Chronicles, a series of historical urban fantasies. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the writing of these books, all of them set in pre-Revolutionary Boston, has required extensive research. I have consulted historical monographs and biographies, old newspaper articles and a host of other sources, some of them utterly predictable, and others…

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King Edward and the Jews

One of the characters in my books who has been very well-received is Mordecai, a surgeon who begins as an antagonist and turns into Elisha’s mentor. But his presence in this world at all needs a little explanation. . .you see, the books are set in 1347, but Edward Longshanks expelled the Jews from England in 1290.

Edward I is known, even renowned, for his prowess as a warrior and war-leader, a proper king in the medieval tradition. Then, as now, war was an expensive proposition, especially if you wanted to wage it on several fronts, say, in Scotland as well as pressing your claims against France. Where to get that money? Taxes are nice, but not always sufficient, and there is the bother of collecting them. How about a loan instead? During the Middle Ages, Christians were not allowed, by Church law, to collect interest on loans to other Christians, so this dubious role fell upon the Jews. Frequently merchants and skilled craftsmen, the Jews thus also became bankers for a large number of Christians, and, in a roundabout way, Christian monarchs.

Clifford's Tower in York, site of a notorious massacre of Jews in 1190

Clifford’s Tower in York, site of a notorious massacre of Jews in 1190

William the Conqueror had established the feudal system of allegiances when he took over England, but the Jews were exempted, owing their allegiance directly to the crown. This was a relatively common arrangement and sometimes served to protect Jews from the anger of Christians because attacking them meant attacking the king. In Avignon, the popes served in a similar function, and sometimes used it to defend the Jews against the outlandish accusations that arose during difficult times, like the Great Mortality (the Black Death, as we know it). However, the Jews received interest from their Christian clients, and the king could selectively tax the Jews at a higher rate to seize that money for his own needs.

And here is the tragic heart of so much of that anger against the Jews. . .nobody likes the guy who holds the purse strings. Jews were decried for the very role that Church law pushed them into, that of usury. Among the many deep and deadly roots of antisemitism is simple economics. Medieval attitudes toward Jews still persist today–I’m not going to dignify them with enumeration.

In the case of King Edward I of England, his wars began to strain his finances. He wanted to raise taxes from his nobles, and essentially bargained away the Jews–expelling them from England, as he had during his earlier conquest of Gascony, and seizing their property–gaining wealth and gaining the favor of his subjects who resented the Jewish community.

While the Jews were not officially permitted to return to England until 1657, there is some evidence that they had begun filtering back. I imagine Mordecai to be one of these quiet, individual migrants. Under the burden of his own grief, Mordecai has ceased to be concerned about what happens to him–until Elisha’s example shows him another way to cope.

One of the reasons I wanted to write these books was the number of times, in my historical research, that I read of witches, Jews and homosexuals being treated together with heretics, and subjected to any number of injustices as a result. I wanted to look at the layers of prejudice built up in the society at the time–and perhaps to consider how those prejudices remain, even today. I am disturbed by the apparent rise in anti-Semitic crime and commentary–and by the fact that its roots lie in weary rumor and in doctrines laid out centuries before. Some parts of history are meant to be relegated to the scrap heap of time.

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Elisha Magus Book Day! With footnotes. . .

Hello, all,
it’s the day I’ve been anticipating for at least a year–the release day for Elisha Magus, book 2 in my Dark Apostle series.

Cover of Elisha Magus, by amazing artist, Cliff Nielsen

Cover of Elisha Magus, by amazing artist, Cliff Nielsen

In the past year, some of my blog entries have been of the sort I consider footnotes to the text–they talk about historical details or choices related to the book itself. For those of you who’d like to follow along, here are some of those links, so that you can insert these tidbits as you enjoy the text, or return here afterward to learn more about some of the settings in Elisha Magus. As you know, research is a large part of the fun for me–I can’t use everything I learn, but I’m often informed by it as I write.

A brief history of barrows

The two death markers of William Rufus

Medieval wall-painting

Researching what blooms in an English medieval garden

The Traitor’s Gate (file this under “sirs not appearing in this book”)


Myself, I will be sharing the book with my local audience at the Farmer’s Market here in town (dressed in my barber-surgeon outfit, complete with tools and bloody handprints–should be fun!).

You can also find me celebrating the book at the Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, NH on July 10 from 6 to 8 pm

and sharing the stage with the amazing Carol Berg at the Old Firehouse Bookshop in Fort Collins, CO on July 25th at 7 pm.

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Stretching things out: Hanged, Drawn and Quartered

During the Middle Ages, execution was a big deal–usually a very public big deal, with citizens gathering from all around to witness the event, both as a celebration of justice (the king’s and therefore, the Lord’s) and a warning to others, as well as a social occasion, in the way that following an important trial might be today. The details of the crime may be horrifying, the “common interest” in the preservation of law and order is emphasized, and, well, it was a bloody good show. Tension, drama, high stakes. . .sometimes literally.

One artist's conception of the execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger.

One artist’s conception of the execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger.

In England for many centuries, the official punishment for traitors was to be Hanged, Drawn and Quartered (sometimes with disemboweling thrown in for good measure, as in the executions of William Wallace or Hugh Despenser the Younger during the 14th century). It’s important to make a distinction between your ordinary hanging, and the sort practiced as part of a larger punishment scenario. Most hangings were meant to occur on a scaffold in which the victim would receive a large “drop”, often by pushing the individual over the edge of the platform. Done properly, and with a well-placed knot, this results in the neck breaking, with death following soon after. If the unfortunate soul did not break his neck right away, friends of family members might be permitted to rush forward and give a tug on his legs to ensure a quick death. Hence, “hanged by the neck until dead.”

In the longer version, the criminal would be lifted from the ground by the rope and suffer strangulation (more similar to what happens to Elisha in Elisha Barber), a more protracted death. If the victim is to undergo additional penalties, he would be cut down after a brief and terrifying interval, to await the next stage. In this case, either the disemboweling, or straight to to being drawn–limbs bound to four separate large animals who are driven in separate directions until the victim is torn, well, limb from limb, and thus, “quartered.”

For the traitor, the quarters are then sent to the four corners of the kingdom to serve as notice to any who might consider the same crime. The head is typically removed and retained separately, often for display on a spike on the Tower Bridge, if the execution has taken place in London proper. The heads could remain for a long time before disintegrating, or, occasionally, being smuggled down for burial by the supporters of the deceased.

When I’m reading or writing about stuff like this, after overcoming the initial impact, I start to wonder about the details, like who is responsible for dragging the quarters to their distant resting places? It is events like this, after all, which result in our fore-fathers banning of any “cruel and unusual punishments.” Cruel? Definitely. Sadly, not so unusual in the history of the world. Something to think about as we head into July 4th week. It’s clauses like that which make our nation worth celebrating.

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A Little Movie on the Virtues of Medieval Medicine (celebrating Elisha Barber in paperback, with a trailer!)

This week, Elisha Barber is available in paperback wherever books are sold–so if you’ve been waiting for the pocket-size version, now’s the time. It also includes a sample from the second book, Elisha Magus (you can read sample chapters from both on my website).

And to celebrate, I have created a little book trailer that I hope will amuse you–especially those of you with an interest in medieval medicine–in which I consider people’s concerns about Obamacare, also known as the Affordable Care Act, and give them something to take their minds off their health care woes–or at least,encourage them to be more grateful for what they have.

People who are enchanted with the pretty parts of the Middle Ages–chivalry, knights, princesses, tapestries of unicorns, flowing gowns and towering castles–often ask if I wouldn’t like to go back there. That, I can answer in one word: hygiene. Imagine a time in which many medical practitioners believed that water actually spread disease (which, to be fair, in some cases and places, it does) and thus that washing your hands, even, say, before or after surgery, was neither necessary, nor healthy. So if healthcare today worries you, click on the movie above, and think how different things could be. . .

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The Uses of History: Inaccuracy and Injustice

One of my commenters on another post included the following: Kenneth Chase cites a book called “Teppo denrai” by Takehisa Udagawa who states: “If historical inaccuracy is ignored for the sake of the message then it is not clear what the message gains from being placed in an historical setting”

Which, as a historical fantasy author, has made me consider why I do what I do. I believe that my first duty is to the story–generally, the story of a character who faces great problems. History is an excellent resource for all kinds of problems. In the case of Elisha Barber, I wanted to examine a few problems–some on a personal level (what happens if your brother commits suicide, though his society believes he will go to Hell for it?), some on a more societal level (what happens when injustice is so endemic in a society that the lives of its lower-class soldiers don’t “count”?) How far is it right to go in service to a cause–would you die for it? kill for it? allow or encourage others to do so?

Protagonist Elisha, a Barber-surgeon, stands in the ruined church

cover image for Elisha Barber, from DAW Books, cover by Cliff Nielsen

They cynics among us will have noted that these problems are still rampant today–especially those following the VA hospitals scandal and worried about how we are treating our soldiers right now. So why is the story set in a historical period?

First reason, history, like fantasy, is a sideways view of our own time. It’s been said that, no matter when and where a book is set, the author is always writing about his or her contemporary era. We can’t really help it–this time and place is, in spite of all research, what we know best. It is what has imprinted our psyche to form us as writers, and to suggest the things we are likely to be concerned about enough to write about them. So why not go into journalism to write about current events or ideas?

Here’s where the sideways comes in. People easily lose interest in the news. They feel a pang of righteous outrage when they hear or read about something bad happening to someone, somewhere–then it’s over and they click through on a link about easy weight loss. It is also easy to avoid difficult issues by simply avoiding following those news stories or reading the non-fiction produced about them (often while thinking, “well, that’s not *my* problem.”). A well-crafted novel, on the other hand, encourages sympathy with the protagonist(s) and draws the reader in through their adventure. The reader can feel close to the protagonist who is distant in time and place, without feeling pressured by what’s happening–after all, it’s only a novel.

Susan Sontag posited that the problem with over exposure to images of death, violence or degradation isn’t that people become insensitive to them, but rather that people become overwhelmed by helplessness about them. Why keep looking, why keep reading about a tragedy you can’t do anything about? In fiction, by way of that identification with the protagonist, you can. You can see that action can be taken, that it can be effective, at least in the world of the novel. If the world of the novel is Middle Earth, you might be inspired by the actions of the heroes, but not relate it to their own earth. A historical setting, on the other hand, still has real-world implications. It can be far enough from the reader’s experience to allow the reader to step away from today–but it is still connected, still suggestive of the substance of the world.

Phillip Zimbardo (creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment) and Zeno Franco wrote an article called “The Banality of Heroism,” in which they conclude that one good way to nurture the heroic imagination (leading individuals to think of themselves as potential heroes) is to encourage the reading and sharing of heroic narratives. Today is the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, with its iconic image of that single, unknown person facing down a row of tanks. If a story can inspire people with that kind of strength and courage, I’m all for it.

But the commentor’s quotation begins with the idea of historical accuracy. Basically, it asks, if you’re not going to be accurate, why write into history? My question in reply is, where does accuracy begin and end? We don’t know as much about history as we think we do. A manuscript can turn up in an unexpected place that turns our understanding of a critical event or person on its proverbial ear. The archaeological record can be tricky to interpret, and the written documents (which don’t even exist for many times and places, and are incomplete at best) make little attempt at accuracy themselves–exaggerating the size of the enemy force, misrepresenting leadership as stronger or weaker, incorporating only a particular point of view. It’s only in recent years that we’ve tried to look for and include a variety of perspectives on history, and to make history not merely the records of the victor.

So even if the author wishes to be as accurate as possible given current information, he or she is already at a disadvantage. Next, there is the hurdle of audience investment. If the reader wants a history book, he’ll go get one. If the reader wants entertainment (and doesn’t mind some history) then he’ll come to historical fiction. The expectation of the genre is to present a solid impression of the historical time and place being represented–in the way that a stage set is a representation of a real house. You include the pieces most relevant to the story, display them in a way the reader can understand, and try to suggest the greater breadth and depth of possibilities outside the stage. Most authors of historical fiction attempt to be accurate in the items and aspects that are portrayed, but they also know they cannot portray them all. Something will be lost in the translation of the historical reality to the page of a book.

However, something is gained as well. A well-written historical novel invites the reader to explore another time and place, to learn more about that setting through the vehicle of a narrative experience. The fusion of a strong historical setting, with a story the reader can enjoy produces a work capable of revealing both the past and the present–and, perhaps, illuminating something about the reader that could be seen in no other way, through the sidelong glance of the historical mirror.


Posted in Elisha Barber, essays, fantasy, fiction, history, Uncategorized, writing, writing process | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment